The landscape of Manchester city centre is filled with reminders of the industrial revolution, of Arkwright and cotton, of trading and trains, of the spoils of empire. But peer closer and there are reminders of the town called Manchester before the mills and the steam engines. A place of Celtic tribes and Roman soldiers, of medieval markets and wealthy merchants, of plagues and uprisings. It’s this earlier history which is explored in Alan Kidd’s new book, The Origins of Manchester.
Taking us back to a time before Manchester became the world’s first industrial city, before the textile weavers and early co-ops, before the factories boomed, this book is an exploration of lesser-known, yet just as fascinating, stories.
According to the publisher’s promo copy and the author’s introductory remarks, this book seeks to do two things. Firstly, it aims to explore and reveal some of the early history of Manchester. At this, the book is entirely successful. Kidd plots out the pre-roman era in and around what we now call Manchester, tells us about the Roman settlement of Mamucium, and explores its decline with the end of Roman influence in Britain. He writes about the rise of the medieval town nearby and the shift to becoming an important trading centre, centuries later.
But there is a second endeavour, clearly stated at the start of the book: to make this relatively unknown history as accessible to as wide a readership as possible. At this undertaking it is, I’m sad to say, less successful. The author is an academic – a professor, a teacher, a researcher, an authority on Manchester’s history – who has been publishing for more than three decades. His dozen or so books on the subject, many issued by academic publishers, are well respected in the field. Accordingly, this book feels, ultimately, still like it’s aimed at a specialist or university audience, rather than being directed towards a general readership.
Much of the text is academic in tone, sometimes long-winded. As I didn’t previously know my feoffs from my fustians or court leets, I had to refer to a dictionary on a few occasions. And I had to read much of the text twice to really comprehend what the author was attempting to get across.
I’m not suggesting that history needs to be dumbed down or oversimplified. Far from it. Histories need to be explored, investigated, delved into in all their richness and complexity. But for a book that has so clearly stated its intention to tell these stories in a more readable style, it lacks the clarity or personality that a more ‘popular’ history might offer, especially in some of the earlier chapters where the text feels more like a list of chronological facts rather than a true historical narrative.
Kidd’s prose is certainly more fluent when it comes to more modern history, and the later chapters have more of a sense of freedom and flourish to them. An argument gradually, and successfully, builds through the book that Manchester did not simply launch itself as an industrial city – just as nobody wakes up and thinks ‘let’s start an industrial revolution today’. Instead, Kidd clearly explains how the building blocks were in place that enabled Manchester to eventually have the successes it did, being in the right place at the right time.
The second half of the book, the history perhaps more well known and closer to our frames of reference, is less about the origins of Manchester and more an advent of the industrial revolution that would inevitably come and which Kidd has written about elsewhere in greater detail. For those wanting that level of scrutiny, for academic students of the pre-industrial era and for those seeking a thoroughly researched and clearly referenced book on early Manchester, this is certainly an incredibly useful resource. And for those who might seek to write this fascinating story in a truly accessible fashion, with the general non-specialist audience in mind, perhaps this book of historical content could be the catalyst they need to write something truly special.
The Origins of Manchester by Alan Kidd is available from good booksellers and from www.carnegiepublishing.co.uk